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This article was published 21/6/2018 (510 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The DC Universe might have Superman and Wonder Woman, but the NorWest Co-op has a Justice League of their own.
Food justice that is.
Well, technically it’s called Teen Food Club — but it’s nicknamed Food Justice Club (which, let’s face it, is a way cooler name) and it’s brought together a group of kind, bright and articulate students from Sisler High School. It’s an outgrowth of their Breakfast Club program, which had approached the co-op seeking a partnership where the teens could cook for Breakfast Club. It morphed into something even better.
The club is funded by President’s Choice Children’s Charity and is geared toward youth ages 14-19 who are interested in growing, cooking, talking and learning about food and food issues. It averages about a dozen participants and started in January of this year. The 10 Wednesday sessions offer hands-on experiences learning new and international recipes, food-preparation skills, games, discussions about food security and food justice.
It takes place at NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre, which is a part of Community Food Centres Canada, a countrywide network working to increase access to healthy food in communities through a variety of programs.
The club is led by Red Seal-trained chef Camille Metcalfe, 35. She joined NorWest as a community chef in September 2017, and is assisted by Alexandra Yugbovwre and Mikaela Wight.
"I have been working with youth for years now in various capacities and I love the wonder in their eyes when they discover something for the first time, so I was very excited to take on this program," says Metcalfe.
The students have gained skills through a variety of activities, including making ravioli from scratch, do-it-yourself ramen in a jar, eggplant Parmesan, Thai curry from scratch, sushi making, a grocery store scavenger hunt, hot sauces from scratch, seed-starting and caring for seedlings.
"Today we’ll be making pizza in our outdoor wood-fired pizza oven," she says.
The club has a beautiful facility to work in. It’s a huge dining room, with pale blue walls, a mural map of the neighbourhood on one wall and a wall of windows with a view of the courtyard with raised garden beds, a picnic table and a stunning 2.4-metre tall wood-fired brick oven — already stoked and ready to go.
The open concept stainless steel commercial kitchen looks out onto the dining room filled with chunky wooden tables and chairs — a bright and homey space.
This day, 13 teens are going to learn to make homemade pizza. Metcalfe has already made dough balls and everyone gets two to open and try to toss before topping them for the oven. But first, it’s hairnets, headbands, red aprons and thoroughly washed hands. Once everyone is ready to work, out come the toppings to be prepped: mushrooms, feta, tomatoes, bacon, roasted peppers, meats, cheeses, fresh herbs. There’s a sauce to be blended.
Metcalfe asks: Who’s cut a pineapple before? Miguel Viado, 17, steps up.
"Cut the bottom so it’s stable," says Metcalfe.
"I didn’t learn how to do this until I was in my 20s — I’m aiming the knife to follow the circles going the whole way around."
Miguel was already doing some cooking at home with his family and he’s leaning toward a career in the culinary arts.
"Later in your life, when you’re an adult and you’re living on your own, you’re going to have to know how to cook and how to budget for food," he says.
"Tonight with the pizza, I learned that you have to balance every ingredient, and I’ve also learned how to make dressing — basically you need an acid and an oil and something sweet."
Kayla Umali and Halle Ilagan are taking turns blending the sauce with a stick blender. Metcalfe encourages them to taste the sauce when they’re done.
Halle, 17, is a leader at Breakfast Club. She is planning to study engineering.
"One thing I like and that I want people to know, is how much of a community vibe you can get from this place," she says.
"Camille learned our names super fast, that helped me to be less shy and helped it to feel less like a class and more like a family type of thing. She’s like the mother teaching all her kids how to cook."
Metcalfe runs an easy-going ship. She’s calm, friendly and patient. Once everything is chopped, cutting boards are put away, so the dough can be opened.
"I made the dough yesterday because I needed the gluten to form," she says.
"I’ve tossed thousands of these, so take your time — remember when you were learning to walk, your first step probably wasn’t great."
She clenches her fists and tosses the dough. Cool.
Half the kids are opening the dough and pinching out the edges. Halle Ilagan tosses it and gets it. Brayden Erickson almost has it.
Brayden, 17 is looking at a career in tech. He credits the club with giving him the skills — and the food handler’s certificate — he needed to land a part-time job at Dairy Queen.
"When we sit down to eat afterward, we’re all proud: You know this looks great! Now let’s see if it tastes great," he says.
"Then we talk about the different flavours — we really connect over what we did and what we accomplished, and I love that we can build community by cooking."
Camille prepares the "sacrifice" pizza — the offering to the wood-fired oven to see how it will work. It’s a simple recipe: cheese, sauce and basil.
She moves the wood coals, shakes the pizza off the peel and it’s ready in a couple of minutes.
Ganeet Uppal tries her hand at moving the pizza in the oven. She gets a feel for shifting it with the peel and carries it back to the kitchen.
The 16-year-old spent most of her childhood in India before moving to Canada with her family. She is a leader at Sisler’s Breakfast Club and is considering medicine or other sciences.
"I moved here three or four years ago and I was trying to get used to the new methods of cooking I see here, which is definitely different from what I see at home," she says.
"The eating habits are different — a lot less turmeric! The way you eat at a table is different, and even the way you use a knife is sometimes slightly different. And it’s cool to learn those differences before I have to apply them in real life."
The pizzas are being moved in and out of the brick oven and the teens are starting to try them out. Neiliza Combate says making the pizza is more fun and the consensus is it tastes better than takeout.
Neliza, 16, and her family are newcomers from the Philippines. She’s interested in astronomy and possibly a career with NASA. A group field trip to the grocery store helped introduce her to more local foods.
"I have the foods in my own culture, which is Filipino, but joining this club helped me to be open to how other cultures eat their own foods, and all the information I have from joining this club has helped me in making different foods at home, which is information I can share with my mom, too," she says.
Teens are travelling between the kitchen and oven, prepping and cooking. Uppal says the pizza her favourite thing so far at the club’s sessions. Brayden Erickson has mastered the peel and is keeping an eye on things when Metcalfe heads inside to see how things are moving along.
Mia Planas, 17, is looking at being a youth counsellor. She wants to learn how to cook around her food allergies as well as how to cook for her brother, who is diabetic. She says the group feels like a family.
"The day we did chicken was a big day," she says.
"We had whole, raw chickens and we cut them up and Camille taught us that we could use every part so we made soup and some other dishes."
The group is making plans for the summer.
"We’re planning farm tours, Fort Whyte Farm, a tour of a local microgreen business, strawberry picking, and we’re hoping to co-ordinate a group to go fishing as well," says Metcalfe.
"Can we go grub-hunting and cook those?" asks Brayden, who is handing out seasoned grasshoppers for everyone to try — a friend brought them from Mexico. Trying new foods is part of the fun.
Winzy Alinsunurin is 15 and hasn’t yet narrowed down his career plans. He’s enjoyed the experience of cooking and has a take-away of his own from the soup-making session.
"A new food I tried was bamboo, which was cooked in soup," says Alinsunurin.
"I learned that I don’t like it."
The program gives the students the confidence to say what they do and don’t like about food, and the opportunity to develop additional communication skills through their conversations.
Ralph Lejano, 17, says learning to cook gives him confidence, although he’s not planning a career in food — probably medicine, specifically psychiatry.
"You learn a lot about cooking and about being a person in the kitchen," he says.
"I’ve learned a lot about the different techniques in cooking, and also about the hygiene, about the risks when you’re cooking — and being able to make pizza on our own is more fun that just buying it off the counter."
Metcalfe sees the power in a program like Food Justice Club — or rather Teen Food Club.
"In the age we live in, people are drawn to highly processed foods for convenience and because of this, people have lost the skills, knowledge and confidence to grow and cook food for themselves," she says.
"By empowering participants in the program to cook, we can show youth that eating healthy is actually easy and affordable to do and every opportunity we provide brings youth that much closer to building the skills, knowledge, and attitudes they need to make healthy food choices for themselves and prepare them for the future."